Monday, October 24, 2011
The King of Forest Hills
A few weeks ago the rock-n-roll legend Paul Simon turned 70.
There is a strange realization that the people who influenced modern pop music, the people just outside the Baby Boomer generation, but completely embraced and symbolic of the 60s and 70s are now senior citizens. John Lennon would have been 71; Otis Redding would have been 70 in September; Buddy Holly 75 and so on.
Paul Simon's voice, sound, presence, and music have been a constant omnipresence in my life.
My parents, devout lovers of rock-n-roll music and children of the 60s, played the Simon and Garfunkel albums constantly while I was a child, as well as Simon's solo efforts. So much that I have long embedded the music in my DNA. I have assumed that the music is classic only because I can't ever think of a moment where I didn't know Simon's songs.
Simon and Garfunkel were the undercurrent of what I imagined fall and winters in upstate New York where my parents were studying during the late 60s. At times moody self aware, greens flying by from a car window winding down mountains, a dark peacoat and shaggy hair.
I hear the opening strains of the song America and I think of Pennsylvania Turnpike reststops as a child. I can see the washed out blues and aquamarine tiles and glass and smell of chemical drenched antiseptic cleaners that was a 70s cathedral to the dominance of the automobile. The sunsetting over the Appalachian Mountains. Being shuffled into and out of the car, emptying bladders, and then refilled with maybe the tinny taste of a can of coke and a candy bar. I can remember standing in line while my parents bought a few snacks staring at the chotchkies in the gift store. Looking at the glass snow balls that displayed Hummel-like villages covered with fake snow of PA towns that never existed. The magnets, the collector spoons, the tiny ceramic animals, cheap toys, postcards of Bedford, and road games all displayed and a constant wonder of why we never bought anything.
I have often joked that my parents played music so much that the musicians themselves seemed like lost family members. The Baby Boomer icons of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan all seemed like distant uncles. Their presence and influence constantly felt, if not tangible.
Paul Simon was the uncle from Queens, a place where I wasn't familiar with, but seemed nearby and more like what growing up in an urban town should be, rather than the parking lot where I was. I always thought I was supposed to be a New Yorker as a child. I'm not sure if it was the TV we watched, the music we listened to or that when I was born we lived in the New York Market. Paul Simon's solo music fleshed the ideal I had of what New York in the 70s was supposed to be. Maybe it's the photographs I remember seeing, and not the actual photographs themselves. A memory of a memory, the feeling of something that's all emotion at the forefront of thought, without much of a reality.
I had no clue of the violence, the crime, or dangers of living in a big city. I saw Saturday Night Live re-runs, news, TV shows, HBO movies, Sesame Street videos, kids playing in parks, read books of kids in cities and I imagined that was how most of the country lived, or in a way should have lived. Simon sang Me and Julio down by the Schoolyard, Mother and Child reunion, Late in the Evening, 50 ways to leave your lover, Kodachrome, and it was all very adult. The way adults, New York City adults should be through the eyes of child.
I remember staying up and watching the HBO special of the Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert in Central Park. I thought it was live, but reading about it now, apparently the show was not a simulcast. I didn't know any better. There's a famous moment in video, when Simon was singing The Late Great Johnny Ace, a song about the death of Johnny Ace, John Lennon, and John Kennedy. A man rushed the stage towards Paul Simon. So soon after the shooting of John Lennon, a breath taking moment. You could see the utter terror on Paul Simon's face, the security caught and carried the man away. I remember my parents talking about it, and how scary and sad it could have all been, to lose yet another legend. The death of John Lennon was a monumental moment in my life, the realization of a greater world around me, and my first concept of what tremendous lost could be.
I mentioned other stars that were contemporaries of Paul Simon's but never were able to see old age. However, as in the case of Bob Dylan (70 in May), we're lucky and privileged as a society to have the full span of a career of Paul Simon. We've seen him achieve even greater success with Graceland and the mature Rhythm of the Saints. He's also failed spectacularly, with the Capeman. But even that is comforting and reassuring knowing that he's still not only here on the planet but still trying, still active.
As a teenager I tried to find my own music. I sought out equally early soul music and British New Wave. However, I had a Paul Simon greatest hits cassette that I would study to, or have as background. Even in all my seeking, I never let slip the classic rock education that my parents drilled into me. I just took it for granted that I knew all these songs and could go back whenever I needed to. I moved to New York City, and found discovered the City that so many people sang to me about over the years. I even saw Forrest Hills, Queens.
This past summer, I was on New Jersey Transit returning to the city after visiting my parents in South Jersey. I have a routine where I read on the train and just let my iPod play on shuffle. Over the years I have tried to acquire as much of the complete works of artists as I could, even if I didn't have time to sit and listen and acquaint myself to everything that I've gathered. I figure at some point the songs will show up on my Pod as I wander the streets.
As I was on the train, a version of Bridge Over Trouble Water came on that I never heard before. Bridge Over Trouble Water has been played so much and in so many different ways to evoke the 60s or friendship or whatever emotion that TV execs want to manipulate that the song became wildly overplayed and cliched. Like Born to Be Wild, or even the Byrds' Turn Turn Turn, the songs greatness had almost rendered it a parody. I probably hadn't listened to it in years.
This version was from a live album Paul Simon released in the mid-70s that he recorded with the gospel group the Jesse Dixon singers. Familiar, but completely fresh. He explored the gospel roots of the song, making it a simpler song, but a deeper spiritual revelation. There's one moment in the song where the back up singer offers a response, that goes right to the spine. At about 2 and a half minutes in, Paul Simon sings "I will comfort you" and she replies as if possessed by Mahalia Jackson, "I will comfort you..."
I was stunned. A song that I could probably spit out without even thinking like a schoolyard rhyme had become completely new. Not only is the mark of a truly gifted song writer someone who can write a standard that everyone loves and wants to make their own, but also a person that can look at their own material and reinvent it to something completely else.
Paul Simon took his own standard, his own great contribution to the American experience, and made it a transcendental holy experience, that in a sense, has nothing to do any one religion. The song celebrates the phenomenon of being alive and being human. And it does it one two second call and response phrase.
I'm attaching a video of Paul Simon performing with the Jesse Dixon singer on Dick Cavett from the mid 70's. It's pretty close to the version on his live album.
Happy 70th Birthday to Paul Simon, and thanks for 'easing my mind.'